The politics of failure/the failure of politics

by Bryan Walker on September 22, 2010

As an example of contradictory thinking it would be hard to better Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee this week. He was announcing that oil and gas exploration in New Zealand is to get a substantial boost in government resources, including funding to further the possible exploitation of deep-sea methane hydrates.

He made a plea for New Zealanders to consider the potential for an accelerated oil and gas discovery programme to be achieved in an environmentally responsible way.

“People need to shift their thinking on exactly this issue. The development of New Zealand’s natural resources and the protection of the environment are not mutually exclusive. It is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment.”

Is it unfair to construe this as follows?

We need to mine more oil and gas, the burning of which will hasten dangerous climate change, in order to become rich enough to deal with dangerous climate change.

In fact of course, when Brownlee talks of the environment he is probably not thinking of climate change at all.  He gives very little evidence of ever thinking of climate change.


The contradictions of which Brownlee is an example are deeply embedded in the political scene in a great many countries. There is very little indication that governments are preparing to stop the mining of fossil fuels.  Indeed there’s every indication that they’re ready to increase it whenever it looks as if there could be an economic benefit in doing so. Even the monstrous environmental assault of the extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands is justified by its proponents. American Senator Lindsey Graham, who once supported a US climate bill, announced recently on a visit to view operations that he was going to do all he could to make sure that the oil sands production was not impeded because of US policy. He remarked that its production “really blends in with the natural habitat”!

One risks being regarded as slightly mad in declaring that a rational New Zealand would leave any possible new oil and gas fields undisturbed, along with coal unless effective carbon capture and sequestration processes are in place. But that seems to me to be the sane view at this stage of our understanding of what greenhouse gas emissions are doing to the climate.

George Monbiot has been reflecting on gap between the grand announcements of governments about emissions reductions and the reality that they aren’t achieving them. In a bleak column this week he writes that the failure of the international political process to find a successor to Kyoto means that “there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth.”

It’s not as if the warnings are getting weaker.  They are clearly mounting as the evidence continues to accumulate.  But “the stronger the warnings, the less capable of action we become.” We were mistaken to think that something might come out of the last 18 years of talk and bluster. Environmentalists tend to blame themselves, but there was no strategy sure of success. The powers ranged against us are too strong.

“Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don’t want to see. To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power – acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so.”

Monbiot concludes that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialise and start facing a political reality we’ve sought to avoid. I guess here in New Zealand that means accepting that the juggernaut of “resource” exploitation is going to roll on and leading politicians are going to continue to talk as if they’re protecting the environment while they’re in the process of destroying it. It also means that only strong organised implacable challenge is likely to have any effect – there is a small ray of hope in the success of mobilised public opinion against mining in protected conservation areas, but whether that kind of mobilisation can be raised against fossil fuels remains to be seen.

It may be worth noting that another columnist this week found reason to sound more upbeat, though certainly not about his own country. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, lamented the failure of the US senate to pass the energy-climate bill but pointed to the seriousness with which Chinese Communists were by contrast tackling the climate change issue and turning it into an opportunity for the development of clean technologies.  Friedman is inclined to optimism, as was apparent in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, but he provides some basis for it in the case of China.

He quotes Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China.

“China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data…China is changing from the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the world. It has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work.”

Friedman points to the way China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities.

It’s perhaps not much to pin hopes on, especially as coal continues to be used for much new power generation in China. But it may well yet be the case that burgeoning clean technologies will take us further than politicians can. In my inbox this morning was information from the Earth Policy Institute on the continuing rapid growth of solar photovoltaic cell production, described as the world’s fastest-growing power technology. China, Japan and Taiwan are the leading manufacturers. The writer acknowledges that it remains more expensive than fossil fuel-generated power, but points out that its costs are declining rapidly. If fossil fuels ceased to receive subsidies and were required to incorporate their currently externalised costs their relative cheapness would be exposed as only apparent.

Which is good reason to argue in New Zealand for more even-handed government investment in renewables by comparison with fossil fuel extraction. The absurdity of offering so much support for fossil fuels and so little for the green technologies on which our future, if we have one, will depend might be realised by some in our government if we keep on insisting. But it remains a hard slog.


{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

cindy September 22, 2010 at 10:22 am

i have to point readers to the response to Monbiot on Huffington Post by Jamie Henn at

Monbiot, he says, has been “looking for vital signs in the wrong places.”

“I think there is an instrument, but it isn’t policy prescriptions or solar panels: it’s the internet.

“More specifically, it’s the social movement(s) that have grown up with the internet and are just now coming into their own. Let’s face it: environmentalists and greens aren’t going to be able to stop the climate crisis on their own, but perhaps they shouldn’t have been tasked with the job in the first place.To expect a movement that grew up around wilderness preservation to be capable of taking on the richest corporations in the history of money and fundamentally altering the global economy was never too logical to begin with.

“Thankfully, there’s a new movement that’s been building up outside and inside the established environmental groups. All around the world, there’s a new set of Young (twittering) Turks that are shaking up the status quo and offering a new way forward.”

etc. worth a read.

Tom Bennion September 22, 2010 at 10:50 am

“One risks being regarded as slightly mad in declaring that a rational New Zealand would leave any possible new oil and gas fields undisturbed, along with coal unless effective carbon capture and sequestration processes are in place. But that seems to me to be the sane view at this stage of our understanding of what greenhouse gas emissions are doing to the climate.”

1. That’s not mad. Its completely sane. I dont see any need to apologise. Mining for new oil and gas now is as sensible as saying “I’ve found a vast underground supply of CFCs that I want to extract. Can I have a subsidy please.”

2. The government agrees with you. The energy strategy says;
“This potential [of coal] is more likely to be fully realised if an economic
way to reduce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions is found.
Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) will potentially be an
effective way of utilising resources while reducing CO2 emissions.”

Lets hold them to it. They can mine it when you have sequestration or other GHG reduction measures sorted out. Then coal and oil will be properly priced as either a benefit or detriment to the NZ economy.

John D September 22, 2010 at 11:12 am

but you are quite happy to use imported Oil?

Bryan Walker September 22, 2010 at 11:26 am

No, not happy John. But there are alternatives for powering transport and we should be moving to them with all possible speed, not prolonging the use of oil to the last drop.

John D September 22, 2010 at 11:48 am

But why would you stop exploring or drilling for Oil in NZ when you import it?
And why would you stop using coal locally when you export it to China, so they can burn it in their coal-fired power stations?

How would either of these make us use these mythical non-oil based land vehicles?

Steve Wrathall September 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm

“we should be moving to them with all possible speed,”
Or until the extension cord runs out.

adelady September 22, 2010 at 12:12 pm

What all of us “resource-rich” nations are doing is selling the family silver. The resources accumulated in the earth’s crust from millions and millions of years of carbon sink processes are being squandered. Fire is caveman technology. Just because we do it in great, big, concrete things doesn’t change the basic process. The only difference between us and cavemen is that they burned carbon cycle materials – wood and grasses – while we’re burning carbon sink materials – oil, gas and coal.

I’m totally convinced that our descendants could build on our current technological development to finish up recycling carbon sink materials when using them for power generation. They will also have much more sophisticated carbon fibre technologies than we have. If we burn the carbon sink materials, they won’t have them to work with.

Apart from carbon based power generation, there’s always the option of no-carbon, renewables. Having the good fortune to be born ahead of the queue as far as our heirs and successors are concerned, we have no right to incinerate their inheritance. They don’t have the option of shouting at us from the back or elbowing their way to the front of the queue – because they’re not here yet.

We have other options. We should use them.

Tom Bennion September 22, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Does anyone want to address my point? The NZ government says it wants carbon sequestration to be investigated alongside development of oil, coal. You have a problem with that? If so, what?

John D September 22, 2010 at 12:56 pm

CCS has not been shown to be viable, anywhere in the world, as of yet.

We are already participating in CCS research programmes, though the money invested is very small.

Are you suggesting that there should be a moratorium on drilling for Oil and Gas until CCS has been proven viable?

Bryan Walker September 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Tom, whether carbon capture and sequestration is feasible or not is not a judgment I’d want to make The author of this book which I reviewed not long ago certainly thinks it is. I thought the mention of it in the draft energy strategy was hardly a commitment to serious involvement. I imagine much will depend on what develops in other countries better placed to do the expensive investigations. I have also gained the impression along the way that the coal industry is more interested in governments footing the bill for such investigation than carrying it out themselves. But if it proves feasible and safe and still leaves coal competitively placed in relation to other power sources I would see no reason to oppose it.

Bob Bingham September 22, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Huntley power station burns around ten thousand tons of coal a day and this will produce roughly twenty thousand tons of CO2. If we didn’t burn the coal we would not have to capture it.
We can find alternative electrical energy sources but it is difficult to manage without oil powered transport.

Greg September 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm


We in Aotearoa/NZ lack expertise in the kind of heavy-engineering R&D needed for carbon sequestration, so we’d do it inefficiently. We’d be much better off importing the technology.

I’d say “the government should wait until carbon sequestration is commercially available, and only then permit more oil & coal exploitation.”

John D September 22, 2010 at 1:30 pm


So. you would wish to shut down the entire NZ Oil and Gas exploration industry until CCS is commercially available, which may be never.

Yet you are prepared to use imported Oil and Gas?

Thomas September 22, 2010 at 2:04 pm

John D:

Nobody suggests that we can stop immediately using oil, coal and gas. Your question is complete rhetorical nonsense so please stop asking it.

What is suggested to Brownlee is this:
1) Stop subsidizing Oil, Coal and Gas and factor a fair price for the environmental cost of their use into their price. The ETS is one way this might work if the nations could agree to implement it as it was designed.
2) Subsidize rapid development of alternative sustainable energy sources to create the momentum for these to become cost effective mass technologies.
3) Subsidize rapid development of energy saving technologies to create the momentum for these to become cost effective mass technologies.
4) Educate people to change their lifestyle ahead of upcoming shortages of energy and other resources to make society more resilient. for example.
5) Steer NZ into the right direction to be a global player in the technologies (3) and (4) so that we can develop solutions for what will be the biggest technology market this century.

Investing tax payers funds into exploring further oil and gas or coal opportunities is a step backwards and will hurt NZ in the long run as we miss out on the real opportunities awaiting us.

John D September 22, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I did not suggest that we stop using oil.

I asked whether Tom was suggesting that we stop EXPLORING for oil in NZ, until CCS is proven as a viable technology.

This does, indeed, appear to be the case.

My point is that this is hypocritical, in view of the fact that we will continue to pay someone else to look for it instead.

Greg September 22, 2010 at 8:35 pm

John D,

you missed the word “more”.

The government should eliminate rent-seeking and regulations that favour inefficient use of energy. I’d start with outlawing limits on building density (while leaving in place performance criteria, for example for stormwater discharge rates and volumes). No more sprawling outer suburbs.

It should also mandate that all commercial enterprises and councils require pre-payment for all parking that they provide, and outlaw district planning regulations requiring the provision of parking. No more subsidising motorists to the disadvantage of other road users.

NZ gets low productivity out of its infrastructure and transport because of past rent-seeking. It ought to stop.

John D September 22, 2010 at 8:54 pm

I’m not sure what you meant by use of the word “more”, but I am in general agreement with what you say about efficiencies and urban sprawl

As I said in a previous comment, I’d favour an agressive subsidy programme to get NZ buildings properly insulated and double glazed. I just don’t believe there is enough will to reduce energy consumption when it is in energy companies’ interests (of all persuasions, renewable or otherwise), for us to continually increase our demand on the grid.

Gareth September 22, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I’m all in favour of oil and gas exploration, but not at any cost — and certainly not instead of an aggressive campaign to move to renewable energy and alternative transport fuels. In a world where oil is already in short supply and highly likely to become more so in the near future, having access to supplies is valuable — partly to ensure that in uses where substitution is difficult it can remain available, but mainly because it is a highly valuable feedstock for many chemical processes. NZ’s oil and gas reserves increase our resilience to external shocks — but only if we use them wisely, and explore and exploit responsibly.

cindy September 22, 2010 at 2:36 pm

And didn’t I hear someone (some international expert) on the radio yesterday warning that NZ should keep the income from oil/gas and spend it wisely, ie on renewables?

jyyh September 22, 2010 at 2:09 pm

(emulating deniers) As NZ is a country which is like one big mountain chain in the middle and there’s no flat land at all, all one needs to move one self around is to tow himself up the hill or mountain and let it roll… (this coming from a non-NZlander) we have it harder her since all our country is covered with flat bogs so we need to make the hills first,,, and for that we need wind power.

tomfarmer September 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm


thanks for the jamie Henn link.. looks to have things of his generation, so to say, correctly aligned..

I went there looking for what he might say on China.. and was surprised to find how the global movment members he refers to are indeed quite effective in having China’s leaders profess and perform to expectations..

Not that this means much at all for those domestically dispossessed for the sake of international appearances. Nevertheless such actions demonstrate a model of behavior unknown in the west.

ps: good to see Henn clipping from Douglass wayback. Perhaps a clue in respect of social orders’ attainment. Previously waylaid of course, but no less relevant for our times. And reality-based futures.

cindy September 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm

China is a complex beast, that’s for sure. Yes, the leaders ARE listening more…

The lack of democracy means they can make edicts and have those edicts carried out (such as warning their banks not to invest in dirty fossil fuel industry). They are creating jobs jobs jobs and closing down the dirtiest of their coal-fired power stations.

Yet China’s engagement in the international UNFCCC process is still lacking – in some ways they’re as bad as the US – all part of the problem. If they allowed some of their moves to be measured, and put forward the cuts they will be making in GHG emissions into the international process that would make a huge difference. But they’re not.

As someone said to me this morning, it’s in China’s interest for the talks not to move ahead – this would keep China way ahead of the game, business-wise, while the rest of the world (including NZ) wallows in BAU.

I will be in China for the next two weeks – for the next round of climate talks – will be an interesting experience. Might offer up a blog on it when I get back, if Gareth will allow me to!

Bob Bingham September 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Being against every type of industrial development is not going to work. How many people are going to go without transport no matter how green they are.
We should concentrate on the dirtiest energy first and get rid of coal generation. Huntley is due for re-evaluation soon and it should be scrapped.
We can replace it with natural energy, of which we have plenty if we put our resources to it. This includes hydro as this produces large amounts of reliable energy.
Keeping all our rivers for a few canoeists at the weekends and then burning coal for energy is muddled thinking.

John D September 22, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Your comments are likely to upset the outdoor set.

Damming rivers may provide an energy source, but destroying rivers will take away a lot of the reasons people come to this country, either to live or as a tourist.

Personally, I think we have a long way to go in improving energy efficiency in houses and offices.

I can’t understand why so many NZ houses are so poorly insulated, and why on earth do we find it necessary to have aircons running in offices when there are perfectly good options such as opening windows?

It’s not very “sexy”, but surely energy efficiency is the first port of call, not destroying our natural wilderness.

Tom Bennion September 22, 2010 at 10:16 pm

John D, your comment: “My point is that this is hypocritical, in view of the fact that we will continue to pay someone else to look for it instead.”

That brings me back to my CFC analogy. CO2 has accumulated to the point where its a dangerous contaminant. The science suggests no use of new coal or oil. We known that burning currently mapped reserves will change climate so dramatically that the Pakistan floods and Russian fires will become commonplace. That suggests we should be husbanding known reserves, utilising them for limited high value uses (private car use has to fall, or 100 mpg cars only!), while we transition to alternatives. This is a pretty standard response to a pollution problem of this kind. Its just the magnitude of it, Luddite attitudes, and a failure of political will that make it hard.

In 1991 when the Resource Management Act was being debated, it was going to include a provision requiring non-renewable resources to be sustainably managed, on the basis that each new proposal for oil and coal would be assessed as to whether it assisted with long term sustainability, and as a means to encourage the move to renewables. So its a fairly old debate. I think a few policy makers are regretting that provision was removed. Had it operated since 1991 the legal implications would have driven the development of a more sophisticated policy on the development, non-development or limited development and use of oil and gas reserves.

Interestingly, the Crown Minerals Act doesn’t actually require the Minister to adopt a policy for the development of oil and coal reserves. He has to make a conscious policy decision to do that when he notifies each minerals programme (he usually obliges). That might change if proposed CMA amendments go through.

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